Princeton Sociologist Spent a Decade Exploring What Fuels Rural America’s ‘Outrage’

May 3, 2018

Robert Wuthnow tells the Daily Yonder it’s important to look beyond simplistic characterizations to understand how rural America might influence the nation’s political future.

Robert Wuthnow’s new book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, is a distillation of the Princeton sociologist’s decade of research regarding rural communities. Wuthnow, along with a team of researchers, conducted hundreds of interviews with people living in small towns, on farms, and in rural communities in an attempt to better understand social, cultural and political dynamics. Professor Wuthnow is the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University. His many books include American Misfits and The Making of Middle-Class RespectabilitySmall-Town America, and Remaking the Heartland (all published by Princeton University Press).  

In 2013 the Daily Yonder published an excerpt of Wuthnow’s Small Town America. This time, we interviewed the professor via telephone. A transcript (edited slightly for length) appears below. 

Bryce Oates: At the Daily Yonder, we cover a lot of economic and social trends, as well as disparities, related to rural America. We see from the stories we cover and from the economic data an aging rural population, people who are less healthy, slower or flat economic growth, a lack of economic opportunity in some rural places. Are those some of the trends that got you interested in the topic?  

Robert Wuthnow: I started working on questions about rural America about a decade ago after having spent many years as a sociologist working on topics from religion to culture to politics to history. I grew up in a small town in Kansas. My father was a farmer, my mother was a school teacher. I’ve always had a professional interest, and continued affinity and affection, for that part of the country, for rural communities, for farmers, for small towns and small-town people. So, I started to study the economic trends, the demographic trends and so forth. That led to a project focusing on the region between the Mississippi River and Rocky Mountains, then a larger project nationwide, a project studying farmers in particular.  

This book, The Left Behind, is a distillation of what I found. It’s a shorter book written primarily for a non-specialty audience that pulls together some of the main conclusions for all of that research. I was able to draw on more than a thousand qualitative interviews, along with the quantitative data, that my team put together. We had a lot of content, a lot of rich perspective, from people in every state, every region. I was most taken with the loyalty, with the way rural people expressed such pride and identity with their specific communities. They identify so closely with their local schools, their football team, the feeling that there are some concerns but a general affection for the place they live. They believe strongly that this is a way of life that is valuable and worth protecting. People love the familiarity of their communities, the security of knowing a lot of people personally, the ambience no matter whether it’s hill country or prairie or grasslands. Those are the kinds of attachments that they feel deeply, even in their bones, for their rural communities.  

Oates: Did you notice any differences between people who grew up in the area, had ancestors who lived in the communities and the people who were newer arrivals?  

Wuthnow: Oh, yes. The newcomers realize that they’re still newcomers, and that they’ve only lived there for 10 or 15 years. And they weren’t always integrated into the community. This was also, incidentally, an issue related to immigration. There are lots of rural communities where the local labor force is made up primarily of immigrant newcomers, whether that’s working in meatpacking, or picking apples, or working on dairy farms, or as construction workers. That’s seen as having both pluses and minuses to the old timers. The minuses are expressed as, yes, our community is changing, these people are different from us, we’re not sure who they are. The pluses are related to population decline. If you’re community has been losing people for many years as residents, or to help on the farm, to perform the labor, you’re glad they’re there. That’s important in the political moment, with all of the talk of the border wall, the tough talk about immigrants and crime, there’s a perception out there in the journalistic world that “it’s just those stupid rural people who are the problem,” that they’re the ones that don’t want immigrants. And that’s not true at all. There are plenty of quotes from small town officials, farmers, community leaders, say that there are some problems, but we also understand that there is value in many of our communities for immigration.  

Oates: How did you go about collecting the data you used, the interviews you gathered, to measure the rural opinions and trends you were tracking?  

Wuthnow: A lot of the time, information is collected in a county-by-county way. That wasn’t ideal for my purposes, as I was looking for more community-specific trends. So we started with the census data on incorporated places. There are approximately 19,000 towns, boroughs, and municipalities in the United States. 18,000 of those places have fewer than 25,000 residents. Out of those, 14,000 are officially designated as rural. These are places not contiguous with metropolitan communities. From there, I was able to further draw distinctions between towns that are near interstate highways, for instance, or county seat towns, towns with a liberal arts college, is there a larger town near yours, how does the town score with respect to USDA’s amenities index? So we spent a lot of time on quantitative analysis, then we interviewed people in a way to maximize diversity between the variety of economic characteristics, the kinds of agriculture present, whether that’s a corn area or a wheat region or a rice area. Is it a mining community, a tourist community, a town based on government services, or what? So we went about maximizing this type of diversity, and then tried to equalize the number of men and women, to represent racial groups on the same overall percentage as the nation, and then, further, a range of ages, occupations and economic classes.  

Oates: With regards to that diversity you point out, whether that’s among African Americans in the rural Southeast, Native Americans of the West and Great Plains, or Latino and Hispanic pockets, did you notice significant differences between the way these communities thought about their towns than did white people?  

Wuthnow: One of the most interesting differences, not surprising but revealing, is that in mixed race communities, here I’m talking about the South, the story of race relations when told by white people was basically one of progress. They would say that “we used to have a totally segregated town, a segregated school, and now that’s fixed. We never had African Americans on the town council, and now they’re represented.” Whites were telling an upbeat story about change and embracing inclusiveness.  

The African Americans we spoke with were certainly aware of those improvements, but to the black population, if the glass was half full for white people, then the glass was half empty for African Americans. They didn’t necessarily put it that way, but they pointed out how far progress still needs to go, to move beyond tokenism and inequality, to move beyond mere tolerance and toward basic understanding. The reality, in many cases for African-Americans, is that we found severe economic disparities and challenges, and difficulty integrating in communities, difficulty gaining political representation.  

The disparities were also evident in agricultural communities. The case in farming is that a few farms have gotten larger, machinery costs, the costs of operating a farm have grown dramatically, and small farmers and the sharecroppers have gotten pushed out. In many cases, it’s the African Americans, who have much smaller plots of land that were pushed out.  

It was also interesting, talking to farmers and to immigrant farm laborers, to see the difference of opinion about machinery and technology. There were a number of farmers who say, “we have invested $500,000 in this combine, $250,000 in our self-guided GPS tractor, we’re not about to let an immigrant drive that machine.” But those same farmers didn’t want to keep their older equipment, and have higher labor costs. They were trying to do all they can to save labor costs. The immigrant laborers, of course, didn’t always share that opinion.  

Oates: The title, The Left Behind, what was your thinking about choosing that title? I’m thinking that a lot of rural people I know, they certainly choose to remain in their communities.  

Wuthnow: They certainly do. And some comments I’ve gotten about the title, that sometimes rubs people the wrong way. But we did choose the title because a lot rural people did acknowledge that they were left behind. That doesn’t mean they regret it. They choose to remain. But they were literally left behind because their siblings had moved on, their children had moved on. They were the ones that stuck around to run the family farm, to help out the aging parents or other family members. Now these same people often were encouraged, especially in the case of their children, to move on and pursue other opportunities.  

This story is often told as living in two separate worlds from there, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. Rural families know people who live in urban areas, whether that be their children or their families or their friends. They get along, they love one another, they travel back and forth. They often vote the same way and think the same way. There’s this tendency to not only aggravate the Republican versus Democrat polarity, but also the rural versus urban distinction, that certainly troubles me.  

Oates: Yes. That certainly troubles me, too. This constant narrative, among some journalists, not all journalists, but a lot of them, about the angry and resentful rural masses in Trump Country. There are certainly a lot of people who feel angry and upset about their state of affairs, but I speak every day to rural people who work hard to improve their communities, who have a progressive outlook, who embrace diversity. But that doesn’t get picked up by the pundits, the politicians, the journalists, who seem to be drawing boundaries around rural versus urban. I don’t think that there’s some kind of unbridgeable divide. I’m not sure what you think about that.  

Wuthnow: No, no. I don’t think so either. I will say on the question that often comes up, are rural people now considering they made a mistake, have they changed their minds about voting for Trump, are they now ready to vote for Democrats or favor progressive issues. Yes, rural people are not dumb. If trade policies are being proposed that don’t help them or tax policy is passed that harms them, sure, they understand what’s at stake.  

But to ask rural people, who’ve in some communities been voting Republican since the Civil War, to ask them to turn around and say, “that Democratic candidate is for me,” that’s harder. I realize this especially in a book I wrote about Kansas and another one about Texas, that those political loyalties run in families. They also run in local institutions, school board, county commissions. I think that the change that’s likely to happen, just like it was so often in the past, is going to happen in the primaries. In a Republican community, are you going to select a Tea Party Republican or a Trump Republican or a more moderate Republican. You certainly saw that a few years ago when the Tea Party Republicans were winning a lot of elections, and then now you can see that swinging back toward the moderate Republicans in a lot of places.  

Oates: On the Democratic side, though, like the place where I grew up, West Missouri, but also, Northeast Missouri, parts of Kentucky and Southern Illinois over through Tennessee and West Virginia. There’s a lot of rural places where all of the county commissioners, the sheriff, the local officials are Democrats. But they haven’t elected a Democratic candidate nationally since Bill Clinton in the nineties. And the state legislatures in these states, they’ve gone wildly toward the Republican side. That’s happened in my adult lifetime, and it’s been a big change. Maybe not so much Kansas, with its history of Republican politics, but in a big area to the East.  

Wuthnow: Yes. Certainly there’s a strong history with the Democratic party in the South, up through Iowa, across Kentucky. The thing is that Republic victories at the national level have been going on for quite a while. Of course, there was Nixon’s Southern Strategy. In a lot of ways, Bill Clinton can be seen as an outlier, only breaking up the Republican hold on the Presidency for his two terms. And Obama did pick up some votes in those Democratic districts. But as you’ve identified, there has been a big split in the ways in which rural people view local politics compared with national politics. That’s also one of the virtues of our republic, to have a multi-leveled federal system where local politics still matter. Who you vote for county commissioner, or for school board, that matters. A lot of times, that local situation can be the counterweight to what is happening on the federal or the national level.  

To use Kansas as an example, to watch Governor Sam Brownback to become such an unpopular figure throughout the state, rural communities, too, have learned what happened with his experiment in tax policies and so forth. That really impacted school funding, local governments, so many people who supported him initially started to speak out against him and call for a new approach.  

Oates: In terms of policies and policy opinions at the federal level, did you notice anything significant? Are there rural policies that are very popular, very unpopular? I cover rural people who, even those who vote Republican, have been outraged about the Trump positions on the farm bill, say, and about their proposals for slashing USDA budgets. And rural people I speak with are nearly all supportive of Social Security, of Medicare and Medicaid. These programs are very important in rural communities.  

Wuthnow: Yes, well the time when I was conducting the interviews, when my team and I were gathering data, this was during the Obama Administration. And there was certainly outrage, but digging into it, the outrage was mostly symbolic, it focused on “Washington being out of touch, being distant, making life harder.” Rather than helping, they’re interfering with our lives. The people at that level, they were not speaking to policies. On the other hand, many people we did speak with who were very interested in certain federal policies.  

This was the case with, of course, farmers and with local town managers, more so than mayors. And then when these policies were important they were related to certain occupations, certain industries. If you’re talking to retirees, Social Security and Medicare is the big issue. If you’re talking to schoolteachers and administrators, education policy is the big issue. County commissioners and town managers see economic development funding, tax policies, right-to-work laws as the most important. For the farmers, who were the most informed and articulate about policy, and they have to be because of their close ties with USDA, this varied some, but there was generally overwhelming support for federally subsidized crop insurance.  

In the grain regions, the farmers were mostly ambivalent about GMOs, about Monsanto, about what should or shouldn’t be done about that. Dairy farmers were of course tuned in to what’s happening with food safety issues. There was quite a bit of interest about organic farming and those trends. But generally, there was a lot of ambivalence about the farm bill itself. There was certainly a lot of ambivalence about trade policies. Pretty much people were for trade agreements and free trade, but not everyone. There were some people who vocally support protection of local markets. Overall, I was impressed not only with how knowledgeable farmers were, but how engaged they were. We spoke with many farmers who regularly visit their legislators, who participate in organizations and commissioners, who are busy all the time working and taking issues on positions in their industry. And they still had the complaint that’s been the same from the very beginning, that even among some very large farmers, they understand they are relatively small players when compared with the largesse of agribusiness companies. They often don’t have as much of a voice that they wanted. When they said Washington was broken, they mean that they have a feeling that Washington is in the pocket of big agribusiness rather than family farmers. 

This story was originally published by The Daily Yonder and distributed through 100 Days in Appalachia, which is a project of The WVU Media Innovation Center, The Daily Yonder and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.